Northampton became England’s club champions for the first time with a try in the last minute of the Premiership’s longest afternoon.
In an extraordinary tableau that summed up rugby’s new-age drama, two sets of exhausted players littered the turf at the end of 100 minutes of collisions and colossal heart, staring at the big screens while the television match official Graham Hughes reviewed enough replays to be certain the Saints’ replacement loose-head prop Alex Waller had indeed nudged the winning try over the goal-line.
Cue ecstasy for Northampton, beaten last year in their debut final, but fresh agony for Saracens, who had lost last weekend too in the Heineken Cup final. The London club’s mantra that memories and friendship count eventually for more than trophies will be their only refuge from this savage double whammy.
Going into extra time – another first in a Premiership final – the arbiter if the scores stayed level would be tries scored and Northampton were ahead on that count, by two to one. This was a tactical test of Saracens’ retiring captain, the famously cerebral Steve Borthwick.
A penalty each to Steve Myler and Charlie Hodgson meant Saracens, the 2011 champions, were essentially still behind at 17-all. With Borthwick’s team summoning a second wind, Billy Vunipola scattered the Saints with a midfield burst and Hodgson stroked a 40-metre penalty in the second minute of the extra-time’s second period after a marginal call that centre Luther Burrell had deliberately knocked down a Hodgson pass. Everything was marginal by then, every move a nerve-shredding dice with triumph and disaster.
There was one last Northampton scrum and one last attack. Myler seemed not to fancy the drop goal; madness, on the face of it. But the Saints marched on, crabbing and creeping though 24 phases ever nearer to the posts. Burrell plummeted just short, then Waller, who a few minutes before had dashed to the dressing-room for stitches in a cut under the eye, applied the finish and Myler, amid unfolding celebrations, added a superfluous conversion.
If Hodgson had succeeded with a conversion which hit the right-hand post after Marcelo Bosch’s try in the 73rd minute of normal time, Saracens might have won. The match was littered with maybes. Saracens, who finished nine points above second-placed Northampton in the regular-season table, had a 6-0 lead after the first quarter and oodles of first-half possession but there was the gentlest clanging of alarm bells.
The tackle-machine Jacques Burger missed two attempted hits; Chris Ashton missed one. There was a messy line-out, a couple of attacking mauls splintered cleverly by Northampton’s Courtney Lawes, a good break by Owen Farrell that ended in a forward pass. So despite Farrell’s penalties in the 12th and 18th minutes – the England fly-half, who later succumbed to cramp, also missed one from 45 metres – the Saints surged to a stunning long-range attack for the opening try with 29 minutes gone.
From a scrum in the Northampton 22, Ken Pisi was allowed to run 60 metres, and Sarries conceded two penalties as they scrambled, both put into touch by Myler. The throw from Mike Haywood found Calum Clark at the tail, Saracens’ Burger, Farrell and Ashton were sucked in, and Fotuali’i, Myler, Burrell and Ken Pisi used good handling to put Ben Foden over. A lovely moment for Foden whose wondrous efforts in the final loss to Leicester of a year ago were overshadowed by Dylan Hartley’s red-card meltdown.
Myler, the Premiership’s most reliable week to week goal-kicker, converted Foden’s try but Sarries were ahead again with Farrell’s penalty on 44 minutes. Burger in his last act before being substituted put the ‘oh!’ into Alex Corbisiero with a rib-rearranging tackle. Goode cleared some danger, George North went on a mini-rampage, Farrell body-checked the Welsh wing.
The game was opening up even if the scoreline wasn’t. Hartley’s first line-out throw juggled away from his stand-in as Saints’ captain, Tom Wood, but Saracens were held at the corner and Northampton went up the other end for their second try. The officials passed over a Burrell-North pass that looked forward and Pisi’s centre brother George scored from a deft kick threaded by through by Myler. The fly-half’s brilliant conversion had Saints 14-9 up.
Saracens were convinced they had an almost reply when Chris Wyles put Farrell in at the left corner but while Goode was preparing the conversion the referee JP Doyle and Hughes decided Goode’s looped pass to Wyles needed a review. It was forward – so no try – and it felt unjust because Burrell’s earlier effort went without review.
On we went with a thump by Lawes on Hodgson, and a claim by Brad Barritt for an off-the-ball barge waved away. Hodgson, a Premiership winner here with Sale in 2006, bravely charged into treble contact, and Barritt, Goode and Schalk Brits with a pass out of North’s tackle made the try for Bosch, and 14-all. Then Saracens had a 55-metre penalty but Bosch the Argentinian long-kick specialist turned it down. Wyles and Bosch had a raid halted by Foden, there was a turnover by Dickson. Nine months’ slog boiled down to a minute. Phew.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles 57); O Farrell, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 52); R Barrington, (R Gill 84), S Brits, M Stevens (J Johnson 55), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves 52), K Brown, J Burger (J Wray 52), B Vunipola (J George 95).
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi ( T Stephenson 91), G Pisi (J Wilson 63), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, K Fotuali’i (L Dickson 52); A Corbiserio (A Waller 55), M Haywood (D Hartley 55), S Ma’afu, S Manoa (C Day 57), C Lawes, C Clark (P Dowson), T Wood, S Dickinson.
Referee: JP Doyle (London).
Pens: Farrell 3,Hodgson 2
Tries: Foden, G Pisi, Waller
Cons: Myler 3